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Journalists are protected from online threats and harassment by international human rights law, and UNESCO provides a variety of tools to address the issue. In addition, civil society has increasingly brought attention to the issue of online threats and harassment against journalists, and the recent ILO Convention concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work could be an opportunity to further address these threats.

I. Protection of Journalists under the United Nations Framework on Human Rights

A. International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

A variety of United Nations instruments, resolutions, reports, and recommendations explain the right to freedom of expression and its outer limits, so as to protect journalists and preserve their rights. The core international legal text is article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) [f]or respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) [f]or the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.[1]

The tension between the right of freedom of expression and its limits are apparent from a plain reading of article 19, but the provisions can be difficult to interpret and apply, especially in the internet era.[2] As one commentator has noted, speech online is frequently anonymized and free, so that false news and intentional misinformation are commonplace, thus presenting ongoing challenges to the traditional concepts of freedom of opinion and expression.[3]

B. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The scope of the freedoms of opinion and expression under Article 19 was elaborated further by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in General Comment No. 34.[4] As paragraph 23 notes,

States parties should put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression. Paragraph 3 may never be invoked as a justification for the muzzling of any advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets and human rights. Nor, under any circumstance, can an attack on a person, because of the exercise of his or her freedom of opinion or expression, including such forms of attack as arbitrary arrest, torture, threats to life and killing, be compatible with article 19. Journalists are frequently subjected to such threats, intimidation and attacks because of their activities. So too are persons who engage in the gathering and analysis of information on the human rights situation and who publish human rights-related reports, including judges and lawyers. All such attacks should be vigorously investigated in a timely fashion, and the perpetrators prosecuted, and the victims, or, in the case of killings, their representatives, be in receipt of appropriate forms of redress.[5]

C. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly requested that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) coordinate efforts to propose specific steps to enhance the safety of journalists and to implement the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.[6] To date, UNESCO has developed several handbooks and training and position papers regarding journalism, ‘fake news,’ disinformation, self-censorship, hate speech, and the issue of digital threats and intimidation.[7]

D. United Nations Human Rights Council

The United Nations Human Rights Council has also considered the safety and protection of journalists, with a special focus on online harassment, threats, and intimidation.[8] These resolutions highlight the outsized effects that online harassment can have on women journalists in particular[9] and urge States to prevent threats by putting in place “gender-sensitive preventive measures and investigative procedures in order to encourage women journalists to report offline and online attacks against them, and providing adequate support, including psychosocial support, to victims and survivors[.]”[10]   

E. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Most recently, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression issued a Joint Declaration with regional bodies representing Europe, the Americas, and Africa urging the development of “[h]uman rights sensitive solutions to the challenges caused by disinformation, including the growing possibility of ‘deep fakes,’ in publicly accountable and targeted ways, using approaches that meet the international law standards of legality, legitimacy of objective, and necessity and proportionality.”[11]

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II. Civil Society Initiatives to Protect Journalists from Internet Harassment and Disinformation Campaigns

Several prominent civil society organizations are active in the international effort to protect journalists from internet harassment and disinformation campaigns. In particular, ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, the Centre for Law and Democracy, the International Federation of Journalists, and Reporters without Borders have been active in advocating for international standards regarding the protection of journalists from online threats and harassment. These organizations produce an annual report on the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists in partnership with the Council of Europe (COE).[12] While focused on COE member states, this annual report provides helpful statistical information regarding attacks, harassment, and chilling effects caused by online intimidation and threats.[13]

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world’s largest organization of journalists, has been particularly active in the area of protecting female journalists from violence and harassment.[14] An interesting intersection between IFJ’s work and international law will be the entry into force of the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 190 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, which explicitly applies to violence and harassment linked with or arising out of work “through work-related communications, including those enabled by information and communication technologies.”[15]

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Elizabeth Boomer
Legal Research Analyst
September 2019


[1]  Int’l Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 (entered into force Mar. 23, 1976), https://perma.cc/929S-6DPZ.

[2] Dawn Carla Nunziato, The Marketplace of Ideas Online, 94 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1519, 1527-31 (2019), https://perma.cc/YT6Z-BJAK.

[3] Id. at 1527.

[4] U.N. Human Rights Comm., Gen. Comment No. 34, Article 19: Freedoms of Opinion and Expression, ¶ 27, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/GC/34 (Sept. 12, 2011), https://perma.cc/53TJ-GRDY.

[5] Id. ¶ 23.

[6] G.A. Res. 72/175, ¶ 19, The Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity (Dec. 19, 2017), https://perma.cc/US67-3SCX.

[7] For example, see Cherilyn Ireton & Julie Posetti, UNESCO, Journalism, ‘Fake News’ & Disinformation: Handbook for Journalism Education and Training (2018), https://perma.cc/F6EY-Y33X; Avani Singh, UNESCO, Legal Standards on Freedom of Expression: Toolkit for the Judiciary in Africa (2018), https://perma.cc/RPT6-N5CL; Iginio Gagliardone et al., UNESCO, Countering Online Hate Speech (2015), https://perma.cc/2T57-4STC. In general, see the UNESCO Series on Internet Freedom, first published in 2009.

[8] Human Rights Council Res. 33/2, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/RES/33/2 (Sept. 29, 2016), https://perma.cc/7LDG-LQNL; Human Rights Council Res. 39/6, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/RES/39/6 (Sept. 27, 2018), https://perma.cc/YF4R-TDAB.

[9] H.R.C. Res. 33/2, supra note 8, ¶ 2; H.R.C. Res. 39/6, supra note 8, ¶ 2.

[10] H.R.C. Res. 39/6, supra note 8, ¶ 9(g).

[11] U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Op. & Expression, Twentieth Anniversary Joint Declaration: Challenges to Freedom of Expression in the Next Decade, ¶ 3(e) (2019), https://perma.cc/4REA-8NUL.

[12] Partner Organizations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, Democracy at Risk: Threats and Attacks against Media Freedom in Europe (Annual Report 2019), https://perma.cc/U2FJ-UP4D.

[13] Id. at 31-33.

[14] For example, see Int’l Fed’n of Journalists Factsheet, Stop Gender-Based Violence at Work: Support an ILO Convention, https://perma.cc/CNB7-94LZ; Int’l Fed’n of Journalists, Byteback Campaign: Fighting Online Harassment of Woman Journalists, https://perma.cc/A9F5-BUAE.

[15] Int’l Labour Org. Convention No. 190, Convention Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, art. 3, June 21, 2019, https://perma.cc/4DBS-3LAU.

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Last Updated: 11/12/2019